February 16, 1996 was a damp and drizzly day in Grand Rapids. I took the day off from work to attend the meeting of organization I’d heard about – a group of people who were meeting to learn how to better work with guys who’d physically abused their partners. I’d met a woman, Leslie Newman, who worked at the YWCA, and she’d encouraged me to go. At that time, Leslie was fifty, but with her hair in a pony tail she looked thirty-five, and she had a vitality and energy that made her seem even younger. She’d developed the domestic violence treatment program for men and had achieved a reputation across the state for her expertise and commitment to the program.
I picked Leslie up at her home, and we started off on the two-hour trip north to Cadillac where the meeting was being held. In Michigan, a short distance can make a considerable difference in the weather, and no more than thirty miles outside of Grand Rapids, we encountered snow and slick roads. I backed my speed down to 55miles an hour, and we started talking about domestic violence.
I’d worked with men who’d been arrested for domestic violence on an individual basis here and there, but just recently volunteered to start running groups for court mandated men who’d abused their partners. I’d tried to help men to manage their anger and thought they probably needed to stop drinking so much. I’d worked with one client in particular who seem to fit this mold: an ex-cop named Robert, from Detroit, who discovered his wife, Linda, was having an affair. After drinking a 12 pack of beer, he punched her repeatedly in the face, giving her a black eye and breaking her jaw.
As we passed Newago, I began telling Leslie about Robert and about how I’d tried to teach him anger management so he wouldn’t hurt Linda again. I told Leslie that Robert was a proud man and it wasn’t surprising that he got so upset.
By now we’d seen cars in the ditch and I’d slowed down to forty-five. Leslie said, “You said he was a proud man, and I wonder if he wasn’t really a pretty controlling man. I wonder if he didn’t work to keep her under thumb. I’ll bet he called the shots in their relationship, telling her what to do and not to do, and tried to keep her isolated from other people.”
“Well,” I said, “he did say that he didn’t like her going out much. He wanted her to stay home and take care of the kids. I think he was afraid she’d meet somebody else. And she did.”
“Charlie,” she said, “I wonder, was his father a cop too?”
“Yeah, he was. How’d you guess?”
“From the way you described him, it sounded like he came from a family with a dominating father, and he’d carried on the tradition. You know, domestic violence isn’t really caused by anger. It happens when a man’s control of his partner is questioned—when she doesn’t do what he wants her to—when she gets outside of the box. Proud men are patriarchal men, and they gain their self-esteem by controlling others, and they’re insulted when others don’t do what they want.”
“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” I admitted.
“In fact, control is really kind of a high, especially if you don’t feel very good about yourself in the first place. I went to a workshop recently, and the facilitator asked us to stand up with another woman in front of us. She told us to reach out with both hands out and push the woman back by the shoulders, and to continue to push her until she backed into the wall. I was surprised at myself. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed doing this. I was surprised that pushing another person around was a high. It felt good to be so in control of another person.
“As we processed our experiences afterwards, we discussed how we had mixed feelings about our behavior. On the one hand, we had to admit it felt good. On the other hand, the woman who was the “victim”—the one who was pushed—had quite a different experience. She spoke about how small and abused she felt. We recognized that it feels good to control another person, but it’s also very destructive.
“So,” Leslie went on, “domestic violence really isn’t so much anger or alcohol as it’s about power. The guys are raised in a society that tells boys to be real men they should be in control. They should have power over the women in their lives.
“And what we as counselors need to teach these guys it doesn’t work to have power over other people. What works is to feel empowered and to share power. Your client, the cop, may have looked competent and strong, but behind that badge was a pretty insecure guy. He thought that he could make himself feel better by calling the shots and he’d probably been controling her for a long time. In fact, of course, in the long run, things only got worse. She had an affair. And she finally left, didn’t she?”
“Yeah,” I said. “She didn’t leave right away after the violence. He told me she said she wanted to give him another chance. But then one day, a couple weeks later, he came home and she was gone. There was a note: it said, ‘I hope you’ll get some help.’”
There was silence in the car. I said, “Want a stick of gum?”
“Sure,” Leslie said.
In Cadillac, the beginning of the north country in Michigan, it was snowing hard and there was a foot of snow on the ground. That day, at our meeting, we elected the first co-chairs of the Batterer Intervention Service Coalition. It was an important day for that organization. But what was important for me was that in that two hour car ride, I’d been given the gift of understanding the core of domestic violence. It’s about the use of abuse to get what you want.